Podium of Thoughts on 2018 Petit Le Mans
1. Pointless Points: IMSA's point system is kind of like the Balance of Performance -- keep everything close all the time.
Though we're okay with the BoP, we're not with the points. While BoP can lead to great race excitement -- just look at this year's Petit Le Mans, arguably the greatest race in IMSA history -- the points system leaves an anticlimactic feeling.
When there is so little separation in points between positions that it requires a large difference in race positions to reverse standing positions, there's something wrong. It just results in the leading team keeping within a decent range of their pursuers, running out the race, and leaving that anticlimactic feeling.
When the points distribution is so tight that the silly rule of not taking the green flag gives you zero points, something is wrong. When Filipe Albuquerque's car, through no fault of theirs, is crashed out of the race 60 feet from the start and is virtually eliminated from the championship because once you start the race you get full points, something is wrong.
When drivers don't have to win a single race and always be in the championship hunt and then win said championship, something is wrong. When drivers don't even finish 50% or even 70% of the race but still get full points for their position when this is supposed to be an endurance racing series, something is wrong.
The problem with IMSA's point system is it does not award winning and finishing well enough, does not punish those who don't endure the whole race, while punishing those who don't start too severely.
It may have left a lot of contenders still in the hunt in the last race, but really, outside of Antonio Garcia's mistake in the Corvette (which the team recovered from anyway), in the end, all the championship races turned out to be a foregone conclusion.
Thus, a pointless points system.
2. Not So Powerhouse Teams: When Penske entered IMSA with full backing from Acura, many believed they would dominate.
When Joest took over the Mazda program, many believed there would be an instant turnaround in that program.
But that didn't happen. Penske, quite frankly, was disappointing with mistakes, poor driving, and at times strategic errors. Very un-Penske like.
Though Joest did make strides, finishing second and third at Petit, the Mazda team continued to make silly errors, even at the last race where a wheel came off from what could have been a winning effort. A driver error at Laguna Seca while leading threw away a sure win.
True, BoP keeps things close, but that's only for technical performance. Great teams, great execution, great driving, great strategy can overcome BoP. And most expected that from the powerhouse reputations of Penske and Joest.
But that was not to be. You had the independent LMP2 Pro-Am team of CORE autosport and the Nissan not factory backed Tequila Patron ESM performing better at times than the all pro factory backed so called powerhouses. You had the well experienced Cadillac teams continue to be the leaders in performance and results.
Perhaps, that's what it really came down to -- experience in IMSA racing trumped the teams whose reputations were made elsewhere.
3. Farewells: The end of the 2018 season meant a lot of goodbyes in IMSA. The biggest one of all of course was to Don Panoz. More on that later.
Continental Tire is leaving the series after eight years supplying the rubber for most of the classes and sponsoring the Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge. They will be replaced by Michelin.
FOX Sports is leaving as the TV broadcaster after 20+ years, starting back when it was Speedvision, then SPEED, and finally FOX Sports. Say what you want about their production. We know there are a lot of detractors.
However, the on-air folks that brought us the coverage became like buddies joining us at a bar talking about racing.
We'll miss Tommy Kendall's wit, the humor and knowledge of Andrew Marriott, the professionalism of Jamie Howe reporting in the pits while her husband fights for a championship, the zaniness of Justin Bell, the analysis of a Calvin Fish or Brian Till, and in the past the voice of Bob Varsha as well as all the others who contributed behind the microphone.
TV coverage is moving to NBC, who in some ways has become the modern day Speedvision despite losing Formula 1. They now have the second half of the NASCAR season, the entire Indy car season including the 500, and now all of IMSA.
Lobotomy of the [Not The] Race Award: IMSA. It's not for the race. Heck, the race was splendid. It's what IMSA did when they announced the 2019 schedule last month.
Road Atlanta and Virginia International Raceway are separated by 350 miles. Normally, that wouldn't be a concern. However, in 2019, VIR is hosting the SCCA Runoffs, the largest, most prestigious club racing event in the world.
The date for the Runoffs has been known two years in advance. Everyone knew it potentially could conflict with Petit Le Mans. So, what does IMSA do after knowing about the date for a year? Schedule Petit Le Mans on the same weekend!
Normally, an amateur and pro event conflict is not a concern. Except when track workers, specifically corner workers, are considered. The Runoffs is the prized, bucket list event every corner worker wants to attend.
It's a weeklong festival of racing with worker parties every night. Parties which are sponsored. Which means they are well stocked... Every night. For a week. Race action nonstop for three straight days. Every corner, grid, pit, tech, timing and scoring worker worth their salt is going to choose the Runoffs over anything else. Anything else.
Add to the equation workers near Road Atlanta, which used to host the Runoffs from 1970-1993, are starving for the event. We know of race workers who live in the Atlanta area who have no plans whatsoever to work Petit next year. They are already making their travel plans to VIR.
Good luck Road Atlanta trying to get enough workers for Petit because the IMSA schedulers were lobotomized.
Special Mention: Don Panoz.
John Bishop, after leaving SCCA, joined forces with Bill France, Sr. to form IMSA. The first race he held was a professional Formula Vee and Formula Ford event on the infield circuit of Pocono which drew 328 spectators. Talk about the epitome of inauspicious starts...
However, Bishop eventually turned to sports car racing, and he built a solid foundation for sports car and endurance racing in North America. This culminated in the 1980s GTP era, which some claim to be the height of sports car racing on this continent.
IMSA ownership changed a few times eventually ending up in the hands of Andy Evans, who's decisions completely destroyed the sport. Coupled with competing series, first the United States Road Racing Championship under the SCCA and then Grand Am, ironically by NASCAR who originally helped create IMSA. Sports car racing was in dire straits.
Then, along came Don Panoz, who bought the newly renamed Professional Sports Car Racing's ashes from Evans' destruction, renamed it back to IMSA, created the Petit Le Mans event, dictated it was for the fans, and built a new foundation for sports car and endurance racing in North America.
He helped keep variety in sports car racing by building the front engine Panoz Esperante GTR-1 prototype and taking over the Delta Wing project.
Even when he sold IMSA (back) to NASCAR, he made sure the merger with Grand Am was going to work. He made sure it was not a takeover by either side. He made sure that even though the days of variety may be gone from sports car racing, it wasn't going to be a dull spec series either.
He laid the foundation to ensure the best of both IMSA and Grand Am would be combined into what we have today. Many people, especially fans, didn't believe it could be done. And, it did take a few years.
Yet, even if today's IMSA is not as grand as the GTP era, it is the next best thing. Crowds, sponsors, teams, manufacturers, and TV audiences have been returning in great numbers. And most importantly, excitement.
Panoz's contributions to society were way more important than anything he did in racing, topped by the transdermal patch which helped millions kick the smoking habit. Though, ironically, not Panoz himself, a lifetime smoker.
But inside the world of sports car racing, Panoz will be remembered for one thing -- saving sports car racing in North America.
There is no way us fans can ever say thanks enough to Panoz, except to honor his memory by continuing to enjoy what he saved.
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